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Lorne Cardinal defends: Unless by Carol Shields

Unless-140.jpgThe book: Most people want to be happy. But how many have what it takes to be good? Can self-realization and morality share the same space in our lives? Or can we only have one and not the other? These are the questions that underlie Carol Shields' 2002 profoundly moving novel Unless, which explores the "problem of goodness" and how it squares with the very human desire for happiness. Read more >>

The author: One of Canada's most beloved and prolific literary figures, Carol Shields influenced a generation of writers both in this country and abroad. She wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976; over the following three decades, she went on to publish more than 20 other books in an array of genres, including fiction, poetry, plays and criticism. Read more >>

The panelist: One of Canada's most recognizable actors, with numerous television, film and stage credits, Lorne Cardinal is best known for his role as police officer Davis Quinton on the hit TV series Corner Gas. The role garnered him (and the rest of the cast) a Gemini Award for ensemble acting in 2007. Read more >>


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Hannah Classen defends: Unless by Carol Shields

Hannah Classen Unless

November 28, 2010

Hi. My name is Hannah Classen. I'm the web producer for CBC Books, and I'm really excited to be defending Carol Shields' Unless on the Canada Reads site.

It's been a long time since I've read a book like Unless -- a book that quietly captivates you and then moves inside your life to stay. Shields' prose is effortless in probing the depths of human emotion with tenderness and wit. I find myself consciously trying to slow down and enjoy every word because I know it will be over all too soon.

This is a story about a life and the richness and breadth of experiences that make that life up. But ultimately, it's a story about a mother and a daughter, and as a daughter who is very close to her mother, it speaks to me in a really special way. It makes me want to call home more often.

Unless is breathtaking. If ever there was a book that Canada needed to read, this is it.

Will you be championing Unless this Canada Reads season? Why or why not?

Hannah on her first impressions of Unless

December 5, 2010

First impressions are a funny thing.

We already know that Unless deals with loss. Reta, our protagonist, is asking important questions of herself and struggling to understand how to make sense of the world around her. She begins to relate her daughter's "lostness" to a greater loss of female accomplishments and potential in a male-dominated society. It all sounds awfully earnest and important, and it is. But thankfully, Reta's got a razor-sharp wit when it comes to probing the big questions, so it's also awfully funny .

All of which is to say I guess I thought this book would be sad. I knew there would be moments of heart-wrenching sorrow and its requisite soul-searching. But what I didn't know is that I would find myself laughing so much as well. I didn't know I would find such a good friend. And I couldn't have known I would miss her so much when it was finished.

There are books that you read, and they are fun and fast and enjoyable. But, really, how long do you remember them? How long do you carry their words, that voice, around with you? Do they change you?

What were your first impressions of Unless?

Hannah on Unless being an 'essential' read

December 12, 2010

Why is this book essential? Three words: It's Carol Shields. Didn't they make you read The Stone Diaries in high school? She's one of this country's most talented writers. Hands down.

...But you don't have to take my word for it. Just listen to Amanda Bird. She's a community librarian with the Edmonton Public Library, and she's been pushing the "essentialness" of Carol Shields much longer than I have...

Come on Unless fans! Canada Reads wants, nay, needs to hear from you! We all know why Carol Shields is essential, it's time to fill the rest of the world in on the secret.

Is Unless an "essential" novel for you? Why or why not?

Hannah on the 'Canadian-ness' of Unless

December 19, 2010

All right, well, it may not have the Canadian flag on its cover, but the book is largely a dark shade of red with a kind of off-white border. And that's not the only element of it that reflects our national identity. Firstly, our protagonist, Reta Winters, lives in a smallish town in the rolling hills of Ontario, close to nature but only an hours drive from the big city. Her circle of friends is diverse and includes people who were born and raised in other countries and then immigrated to Canada. She is perfectly bilingual, having had a francophone Quebecoise mother and an anglophone Scottish father who allowed her to respond to them in whatever language she wanted (just like the Canada Post). When her daughter decides to move out on the street, she takes up kitty corner from a large department store. No, it's not Walmart. It's Honest Ed's, a Canadian icon. Additionally, and perhaps most aptly, the majority of this book takes place in winter. For goodness sake, the protagonist's last name is even Winters. And finally, this book was written by Carol Shields. CAROL SHIELDS.

I rest my case.

Do you feel that Unless is a "Canadian" book? Why or why not?

Hannah on her favourite character

January 8, 2011

I don't really have a favourite character, unless you mean which character I wanted to hear more from. In that case, it's Danielle Westerman, Reta's older mentor whose feminist philosophical tomes she translates from French to English. I guess it might be Danielle not only because she is an intellectual force, but also because she has the wonderful eccentricity of folding her cloth napkins restaurant-style when Reta comes for tea.

Unless you mean which character was the funniest, a prize which goes hands-down to Reta's editor. A desperately earnest New Yorker, he succeeds in getting more than a little drunk within what seems like minutes of walking through Reta's door and shows (with great aplomb) that he has completely missed the point of her new novel.

Or unless you mean which character had a moment that stuck with me the longest, in which case it's Reta's mother-in-law. Her reaction when someone finally asks her about her life made me realize how often I overlook the people around me, and focus on my own solipsistic universe.

But then again, isn't that what this book is about? Unless ....

Who is your favourite character in Unless?

Hannah on her favourite scene

January 15, 2011

For me, the most memorable scene in Unless is the moment when Reta talks about discovering an ancient invitation to a baby shower. The invitation, addressed to the previous owners of the house, was wedged behind a bathroom radiator. What follows is Reta's imagining of what the shower must have been like and how Mrs. McGinn (she never learns her first name) would have responded to it in 1961, interspersed with Rita's reflections on her own life.

The scene, which is really the depiction of a rather mundane event -- finding an old, rather insignificant, piece of mail while painting, is the perfect illustration of what sets Carol Shields apart as a writer. In this quiet moment, we learn so much about Reta. We see her try to justify the decisions she has made and the ones she is about to make, all while Shields effortlessly moves on to the next point in the story. The way that Shields is able to probe so deeply into the character while never drawing attention to herself as a writer, while never making it seem forced, is breathtaking.

It may not be the scene with the most action, but it's definitely the one that has stayed with me the longest.

Which scene in Unless is your favourite?

Hannah on Unless's biggest competition

January 22, 2011

There is some very real competition for Unless, and that competition comes in the form of a large, loud and exceptionally brilliant Scotsman-turned-Canadian politician named Angus McLintock. Yes, I'm talking about The Best Laid Plans. We know from King Leary that a comic novel can win Canada Reads, and with The Finkler Question winning this year's Man Booker Prize, there seems to be a real appetite for clever, humorous writing in the literary community right now.

But just like The Finkler Question, it's really selling The Best Laid Plans short to think of it as being merely "funny." The reason why it succeeds, and why it's such a threat, is that Fallis has created these incredibly memorable, multi-dimensional characters that you can't help but root for, regardless of your political leanings. As a result, he brings a real humanity to the Canadian political process that is somehow very refreshing to read (who knew I'd become so cynical?). Watch out, Unless, this underdog has proven it can come from behind in the past, and it just might do it again here.

Which book do you think is Unless's biggest competition?

Hannah offers Lorne Cardinal advice

January 29, 2011

Dear Lorne,

They don't call Canada Reads "the battle of the books" for no reason. This is reality-style radio. You'll need to present your arguments in clear, punchy bites that resonate with the other panelists and are memorable. But the key to Canada Reads success is to not get too caught up in the cut-throat action. The most successful panelists are those who don't come out swinging, but instead take a more thoughtful, measured approach. This year's list is stacked with books that could breeze through the first and second vote by virtue of hitting a niche or being a bit flashy, so the key to success for Unless is to come from behind. If you can make it past the first two votes, there is no doubt in my mind that you can go all the way. Head to head, none of the other books can hold a candle to Unless. If you can make it out of the pack, it'll be a clear line to the finish.

What advice would you give Lorne Cardinal?

Discuss the book here.

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